In the 2000s, hundreds of millions of people devoured web games like Bejeweled and FarmVille, powered by Adobe Flash. In contrast to siloed console or PC games, these browser-based Flash games were incredibly accessible: they could be played instantly by clicking a web link and shared easily via email or messages. Yet as smartphones and app stores have grown ubiquitous over the last decade, native apps — those installed directly on hardware — have largely won out due to performance and security advantages. Adobe Flash itself was officially deprecated months ago, marking the end of an era, and of a technology that many game developers credit with jumpstarting the modern games industry.
Yet while Flash may be dead, its legacy lives on. Thanks to improved technology and new platforms, we’re on the cusp of a resurgence in instant games, which do away with downloads and long-winded onboarding flows. A new class of instant games today melds the click-to-play ease of early Flash games with the quality and performance of app-native games. Platforms like Snapchat, Facebook, and WeChat are already embracing instant games in different forms.
This frictionless, inherently social mode of play has the potential to vastly expand and democratize access to games, unfettered by the constraints of hardware. And in the near future, a decentralized network of these experiences could disrupt — and even surpass — the dominance of the App Store itself, upending how we develop, discover, and distribute games.
But first, wherefore Flash?
Since its inception two decades ago, Flash games had two key benefits: accessibility and ease of creation. Flash games loaded in seconds, without downloads or installation. And since Flash was supported by the majority of web browsers at the time, the games were inherently cross-platform. Without barriers to entry, successful Flash games spread like wildfire: The Pong-inspired Flash game Insane Orb, for example, was played over 46 million times on a single website. Flash’s web distribution also allowed creators to bypass the publishers that controlled retail distribution for PC and console games at the time. Anyone could host Flash games, which led to the creation of thousands of web portals like Newgrounds and Kongregate that curate and promote the best titles.
Most importantly, Flash games were relatively easy to build due to an intuitive scripting language and workflow that incorporated art and animation. Flash games could be built in just months, compared to years for console and PC games. This ease of creation not only encouraged experimentation, it opened doors for aspiring creators. Almost anyone could launch a Flash game — and if it wasn’t successful, a new one could be made quickly. As a result, the Flash decade from 2000 to 2010 has often been described as one of the most creative periods in games history.
In fact, many of today’s most recognizable game studios, including Supercell and Zynga, started out building Flash games. But as in-app mobile gaming took off, Flash games waned. In an open letter to Adobe in 2010, Steve Jobs famously condemned Flash, arguing that it was unsecure, closed-off, incompatible with mobile, and a drain on battery life, among other critiques. Seven years later, Adobe announced that Flash was nearing end of life, with the company officially deprecating the standard earlier this year.
The next avatar of Flash: instant games
Yet over the past few years, new technologies and platforms have led to the rise of the next generation of instant games. Like the original Flash games, next-gen instant games are frictionless, accessible through links, and relatively easy to create. But unlike their forebears, modern instant games can run at near app-native quality with console-level graphics.